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What is it like to be a woman in one of today’s top global business schools?

We speak to two Forté Foundation scholars about their outlook and experiences as they journey deeper across the Cambridge MBA programme at Cambridge Judge Business School.

MBA students

“I think as women we count ourselves out of the race if it is not 100 per cent perfect.”

Natalia Dziergwa and Rebecca Kilbane are both Forté Foundation scholars in the MBA Class of 2018. Here they share their insights, experiences and ambitions with Head of MBA Recruitment & Admissions Amy Philpot.

Natalia is originally from Poland but has been based in the UK for the last eight years. With a background in artificial intelligence (AI) and innovative technology, Natalia wishes to return to AI in future, but more on the social impact side.

Irish born, Rebecca Kilbane studied PPES at Trinity College Dublin and has worked for a not-for-profit, investing and helping businesses to scale. More latterly she was director of SNP Communications. After her MBA she wishes to develop a role in strategy consulting.

What attracted you to the Cambridge MBA programme and to the University of Cambridge more widely?

Natalia: “I always knew I wanted to do an MBA and it seemed like it was never the right time to do it. For me it was when I transitioned to a role with management skills. At the time I was then questioning my skill set, especially with regard to managing teams and taking a leadership role.

“I knew Cambridge was the right choice for me when I attended the open day. I spoke to current and past students who were all very supportive and I had the opportunity to explore Cambridge. I could definitely imagine myself living here for a year.

“I was very attracted to the College system – you become part of a wider collegiate system of 31 colleges. You mix with so many people from so many different backgrounds and with so many different stories to share.”

Rebecca Kilbane (MBA 2018)
Rebecca Kilbane (MBA 2018)

Rebecca: “I was attracted to the Cambridge MBA programme because of the skills I would acquire and also the network I would potentially build.

“I was running a company in Europe and I felt an MBA would really help me with financial skills. Once I had identified those gaps I then started looking for an MBA programme to address the shortage in my skill set.

“Cambridge truly offers the incredible chance to build a global network. As you see from the stats, there are over 50 nationalities represented. You are building relationships here that you have for the rest of your life.

“I chose Cambridge because my friend had come to Cambridge and she said ‘just come and visit’. I absolutely loved the business school and the vibe, the atmosphere when you walk in the building. What really comes through is the ethos of collaboration. Each individual who is on the programme embodies that trait, the programme is structured to focus on collaboration, and collaboration is one of the most critical skills needed as a leader today. Collaboration with many different people from many different cultures and countries, that is what CJBS gives you. “

What barriers do you think may prevent women from applying for an MBA?

Natalia Dziergwa (MBA 2018)
Natalia Dziergwa (MBA 2018)

Natalia: “For me one of the barriers is my own perception: I was thinking that the people who do an MBA are super human. I also was very good at putting barriers in the way – ‘Perhaps this is not the right time, I’m not there yet, I’m not good enough, I won’t fit in’ and so on.

Rebecca: “For me there were three main barriers:

“One was that my GRE results was not the best and I almost didn’t apply because of it. I think as women we count ourselves out of the race if it is not 100 per cent perfect. For example, if a woman applies for the job and they don’t tick 50 per cent of the boxes, they won’t apply for the job.

“I almost counted myself out based on my GMAT score. So, I would say if your GMAT/GRE is not the highest possible score, still apply.

“The other thing is family – if you have a family it would be harder to come and do your MBA, for example, as a woman with children. But there is an amazing cohort of incredible mothers in our class, they are all here, their partners have come, their kids are here, the class is supportive and helpful and CJBS is super supportive. So, don’t count yourself out and just submit the application”.

What practical tips can you advise for those applying for the Cambridge MBA?

Rebecca: “When you apply, get in touch with the current class and CJBS alumni. Reach out to as many people as possible and just ask them for advice, ask them to review your application or to look at your CV. Reach out and research whether CJBS is the right fit for you.

“When you have checked and rechecked your CV through this kind of forum you know when you are submitting your application that it is going to be the best application that it can be. Come to Cambridge, come and see the School, for an open day or by appointment at another time.”

You are both Forté scholars – how are you using the skills provided by Forté and how you are making the most of the opportunity?

Natalia: “For me, the employer contacts have been the most useful opportunity made available by being part of the Forté network. Forté creates a network of named and dedicated people within many of the large multinationals and they are more than happy to be contacted as part of that connection. You can contact them and ask directly what that company culture is and what it is like to work there. They are extremely helpful and a great source of information beyond your own existing networks.”

Rebecca: “Forté have been investing in women on MBA programmes globally for a number of years and so they have developed an expansive Fellows network – in Europe alone there are 500 members and we are now part of that network. We are already planning a Fellows meet-up this year.
Forté is another incredible community and another platform to build more fantastic relationships.”

Can you talk about some of the current initiatives at CJBS for women?

Natalia: “We have a Women’s Special Interest Group and it welcomes men and women. The men or ‘allies’ that attend are incredibly supportive of our initiatives. We are currently organising several ‘fireside chats’, for example, on female entrepreneurship.

“CJBS also has a dedicated Wo+Men’s Leadership Centre directed by Professor Sucheta Nadkarni. As part of their work, the Centre hosts an annual conference each June. This is the place to hear about the Centre’s recent research and impact in businesses, as well as network and discuss gender issues with a group of interested people.

“Many of the women-led initiatives here are student led and we have an incredibly vibrant group that works alongside the Wo+men’s Leadership Centre at CJBS. It was a huge factor in my decision to attend CJBS because there is a dedicated centre for women’s leadership.

“We also have a WhatsApp group called the sisterhood, where we share and discuss everything from what to wear to the college formals, to what childcare provision there is across the city, to what preparation is required for the financial reporting class next week. It is incredibly supportive network.”


This interview is a result of a webinar held in Michaelmas Term 2018 on the experiences of women at CJBS and specifically on the Cambridge MBA programme, where the Cambridge MBA Admissions team and our current Forté scholars Natalia Dziergwa and Rebecca Kilbane discussed their professional backgrounds and what the Cambridge MBA can offer for female candidates. Listen to the webinar.